(Un)Taming the Beast with Two Backs
LiErin Probasco '04
"In the quiet of our writing rooms we have to corral the beast with two backs and tell of its terror and beauty."
-Barbara Kingsolver, "Taming the Beast with Two Backs," in Small Wonder
"Let's talk about sex, baby
Let's talk about you and me
Let's talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be
Let's talk about sex"
- Salt 'n' Pepa, "Let's Talk about Sex"
I think about sex. Such a fact should come as no surprise; after all, most people have sex at some point in their lives. Producers of popular culture flood our senses with provocative song lyrics and sensual imagery, capitalizing on the kinky thoughts they know are in people's heads (in their own, at least). Advice columnists and romance novelists write about it. Biologists and medical experts examine its reproductive capabilities. Religious people make it a sanctified act. I also hear that it feels good, or ought to. The shock value in such a statement is not in its content but rather in its very existence as words on this page. I have dared to admit, no, I have baldly announced that sex is on my mind; what is worse, I have done so in an academic paper. Academic approaches to sexuality remain for the most part avenues to access theory or to study the "other." Debates on pornography tie into questions about ethics or, more abstrusely, the distinctions between "speech" and "conduct." Psychoanalysts study sexual desire as a foundation for discussing neuroses. Writers of literature turn away from the purple prose of bodice-rippers in embarrassment. To be taken seriously, writers often feel they must leave sweaty clinches and tantalizing gasps and moans to the minds of their readers, forever implying but never explicitly describing the throes of passion.
Novelist Barbara Kingsolver questions this supposed aversion to writing about sex in her short essay "Taming the Beast with Two Backs." Having written explicitly about sex in a recent novel, Kingsolver has grappled with the challenges sex scenes pose to writers and readers alike when they are no longer "implied situations" but "blow-by-blow enactments" (p 224). While implied situations permeate the field of literature, Kingsolver notes the lack of vivid but "serious" sex scenes. She urges writers to overcome inhibitions and reclaim the sex act as something not mundane, dirty, or peripheral to life but rather terrible and beautiful and, above all, fundamental to human existence. She wants to drag sex out from behind its curtain of innuendo and expose it in all its messy glory. Her personal and contemplative essay speaks to larger concerns about the marginalization of sexual behavior within respected discourses on truth and value in human lives and thoughts.
While I admire the essay's conviction and beautiful prose, I do not believe that Kingsolver is saying anything particularly radical. The decision to speak openly about sex is not a particularly innovative one. Stars of pop culture have been doing it for years (the quote from singers Salt 'n' Pepa above is just one of many examples). Kingsolver is suggesting that sex become a topic in the field of literature. She perceives sex as an important subject that holds universal truth value; therefore, the serious discourse of literature should engage this topic in its quest to reveal truth. Pitting herself against convention, Kingsolver braves the possible criticism of her readers in order to convey to them just how important sex is. Unfortunately for Kingsolver, this bold enterprise is based entirely on fabricated convictions about writing, sex and truth. She fails to recognize that her own beliefs about writing and sex do not arise from an essential natural order but are productions of cultural systems of thought. She believes it is both difficult and yet imperative to write about sex, but does not question how she came to such a belief. Failing to question this process, she fails also to accomplish her goal. Rather than freeing writers to speak the truth of sex, Kingsolver creates new discourses that set different limits on what can and cannot be said of truth and of sex.
Kingsolver places herself consciously in a role of writer as subject. She defines herself "writer" and embraces the consequent responsibilities to and relationships with the rest of society she believes that role entails. For her, "the writer" (that is, the writer of literature) is a figure intended to reveal truth through the crafting of fictive narratives. It is a noble figure, unearthing and expressing the essential truths of humanity, both the beautiful and the terrible. Kingsolver depicts herself as subverting "religious and cultural heritage" in order to write about the universally important action of sex (Kingsolver 2002:226).
Set within this specific framework, Kingsolver posits the difficulty of writing about sex as a problem of self-exposure. She feels connected to the words she has written and, through those words, to "her" readers. Detailed descriptions of sexual positions and bodily sensations will reveal Kingsolver's sex fantasies to the critics, teachers, mothers, neighbors and strangers who read her book. In turn, they will react, judging her book and, through it, Kingsolver herself based on their ideas of appropriate literature. Readers are able to make this leap from words on the page to Kingsolver-the-person because of traditional conceptions of authorial presence within writing.
Jacques Derrida addresses the question of presence in his Signature Event Context. Citing French philosopher Etienne Condillac as a typifying example, Derrida summarizes the position of most Western thinkers as a belief that the author's absence from a given piece of writing at a given moment is actually "a continuous modification, a progressive extenuation of presence" (Derrida 1982:313). In this conceptual framework, a piece of writing is a representation of a message, intention or idea of an author who is separated from that message only by distance or time. These notions of writing as representation and extension of presence are possible as long as writing is understood as one method for communicating intention, one that simply allows for such communication over distance and time.
I believe an examination of the supposed role of a writer in society in conjunction with this understanding of writing as representing its author provides an explanation for Kingsolver's anxiety about her audience. Readers assume that every text has some message from its author encoded within it. With academic writing or essays, that message is explicit (at least, it should be). However, literature is expected to be more subtle. A person wishing to be considered a serious writer tries to tell a story that, through its language, characters and plot, illustrates deep, important truths about the human condition. Both writer and reader participate in a text that they believe must convey a message. They "must" find this message, not only because in their minds all text is simply a medium of communication, but also because the specific label of "literature" demands of its texts some insight into a deeper meaning or truth that underlies their fictive accounts. Inevitably, any meaning unearthed within a text is interpreted as the author's intended message. Thus, the invented continuity of presence forges an intimacy between an author's words and the author as subject that establishes authorship of a text as accountability for its message.
Kingsolver's belief in her own accountability to readers for the content of her text is the source of both her identity as a writer and her anxiety about her writing. To understand how being held to account for a text actually serves to interpellate the subject "writer," I turn to Judith Butler's reading of Nietzsche. Butler writes, "[F]or Nietszche, the subject appears only as a consequence of a demand for accountability; a set of painful effects is taken up by a moral framework that seeks to isolate the 'cause' of those effects in a singular and intentional agent" (Butler 1997:46). Viewing literature as one such "moral framework," one can trace the "effects" of a text on its readers to their "cause," the author. The imagined relationship between an author, her text, and its readers allows both readers and writer to recognize a writer as the origin of an idea or message. More importantly, it allows them to judge the content of that message against a set of "moral" criteria for good literature and the "content" of that personthe writeragainst criteria for a good writer, a good person, a good member of the human race.
According to Butler, "one 'exists' not only by virtue of being recognized, but, in a prior sense, by being recognizable" (Butler 1997:5). Kingsolver senses that her new topicsexmay shift her position to an unrecognizable or undesirable one. She writes, "My dread is that people will take my book for something other than literature, and me for something other than a serious writer" (Kingsolver 2002:224). One purpose of her essay is to contextualize her novel and herself within the realm of recognizable-as-literary. Thus, she defines the "serious writer" as having a "duty to draw insights from personal matters and render them universal" (Kingsolver 2002:225). Then she lays out her argument, exposing her fears about not being taken seriously and countering each by presenting a reason for her readers to recognize her as a legitimate, serious writer of literature.
Her greatest fear is that she will be unable to convey the truth about sex and its importance to her readers and, therefore, fail to fulfil her conception of the writer's duty. If she is not able to express some truth that resonates with her readers, they will read the novel as merely a "banal or irritating" detailing of her own private fantasies (Kingsolver 2002:225). Consequently, she must perpetually justify her use of sex as a topic or plot device in order to establish herself as recognizable in her role of legitimate writer. Her justification comes primarily as a connection of sex to biology. She declares that her "novel is about life, in a biological sense: the rules that connect, divide, and govern living species, including their tireless compunction to reproduce themselves" (Kingsolver 2002:223). To expose truth about life, one cannot avoid "the laws of biology" that have determined sex to be "the ultimate animal necessity" for the perpetuation of life (Kingsolver 2002:226-227).
By defining sex in terms of scientific facts and functions, Kingsolver is able to offer a truth for which sex is vitally important. Speaking within a biological discourse on life, Kingsolver can easily assert that, "in the grand scheme of things, few things could matter more" than sex (Kingsolver 2002:227). Backed by this sense of magnitude, she argues not only that she personally is justified in writing "blow by blow enactments" of sex but that sex is so important that other writers must do so as well (Kingsolver 2002:224). She lays the foundation for a reading of literature in which sex scenes are revolutionary and counter-cultural. Language that has been relegated to medical or pornographic discourses "is ours for the taking," she declares (Kingsolver 2002:226). Words can and must be reclaimed by writers in order to counter "our religious and cultural heritage," which is "to deny, for all we're worth, that we're in any way connected with the rest of life on earth" (Kingsolver 2002:226). Her sex scenes, then, are anything but gratuitous. They serve, in fact, the noblest of literary functions: to assert boldy an essential truth that contradicts years of ideological indoctrination.
In further support of her transgressive choice to write about sex, Kingsolver appeals to readers' recognition that exposing the real in this manner is a writer's duty. If books are a reflection of reality or truth, the literary canon to date would imply, she notes, "[P]eople spend roughly half their time in intelligent dialogue about the meaning of their lives, and one percent of it practicing or contemplating coition" (Kingsolver 2002:224). Her pointed skepticism is both witty and persuasive. Of course people spend more than one percent of their time thinking about or having sex. Religious and intellectual discourses, however, have marginalized frank language about sex. Medical and scientific discourses can utilize such language in talking about bodies and their functions, but literature has been a place of loftier thoughts and sensations, where the bump and grind of bodies is relegated to "implied situations" or descriptions of sex "by means of the spacebreak" (Kingsolver 2002:222). Kingsolver sees her mission as convincing her audience that the bodily functions of sex are important enough to warrant attention within the field of literature. Thus, she can proudly declare, "in spite of everything, I'm determined to write about the biological exigencies of human life" and position herself as an intrepid proclaimer of a controversial but essential truth (Kingsolver 2002:227).
The problem with this enterprise is that it is grounded in fiction. The idea that literature must speak truth is a fiction. The claims that sex boils down to a biological exigency, that a writer is accountable to her audience, and that she has a relationship with her readers are all fictive. They are functional fictions, certainly. Each is believed to be true and shapes people's thoughts, attitudes and behaviors toward writers, texts, readers and sex. But to accept these constructions as truth, naked and whole, is to limit the possibilities of writers, texts, and readers; it is to recontextualize and redefine the limits of sex within new margins. Such discourses cannot reveal and free the truth of sex as Kingsolver seems to think she is doing.
Kingsolver attempts to satisfy her own expectations about what her readers expect by revealing the intrinsic importance of sex to human life. This intrinsic importance is not an actual uncontestable element of sex but rather the necessary result of her fantasized relationship with and accountability to her readers. In order to write about sex, sex must be important. In order to establish sex as important, she formulates through scientific discourse a human sex that is animalistic: instinctive, procreative, functional and fundamental. Writing within the interplay between these fictions of authorship and accountability, Kingsolver has a need to establish sex as fundamental before it can be fun. This codification of sex is not a liberating but rather a seriously limiting contextualizing of sex, not least because of the legitimacy it confers only to heterosexual acts.
Kingsolver has set for writers of literature the task of inquiring after the truth of sex and telling, in glorious detail, "of its terror and beauty" (Kingsolver 2002:227). Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality exposes this charge not as an innovative breach of repressive cultural attitudes but as a participant in the proliferating discourses on a dynamic of power-knowledge-pleasure. According to Foucault, these discourses are grounded in a constitution of sex as repressed, a conflation of truth and sex, and a system of confession as a means for uncovering truth.
Kingsolver's essay opens with the sentence: "Reader, hear my confession: I have written an unchaste book" (Kingsolver 2002:222). She goes on to admit that her act of writing is "shocking," but that, even so, she had "a good old time writing about it" (Kingsolver 2002:222-223). Writing sex is set up as a titillating act of transgression. While articulating sexual fantasies is fun and exciting, it is also something taboo or inappropriate; it is something to be confessed.
Kingsolver's confession, however, comes across less as an admission of sin or wrong-doing than a defiant declaration: she will give voice to the silenced act of sex. This use of confession to expose knowledge or truth is not a boundary-breaking act of radical dimensions, but rather an act situated within an incomplete notion of power as repressive and silencing. The "internal ruse of confession," as Foucault sees it, is that what was once an obligation to speak (an obligation so intense it spawned the Inquisition) is now perceived as the unearthing and announcing of truth that overcomes the oppressive, silencing figures of power (Foucault 1990:60). This perception of confession belies the mechanisms of power that operate to produce truth and the processes through which truth is generated. Silence is perceived as the limit of a boundary imposed by figures of power, and the breaking of silence as the declaration of truth in the face of its repression. The confessing voice "anticipates the coming freedom" with every sordid detail spoken (Foucault 1990:6).
However, silence is not the simple lack of discourse that a speaker may assume it to be. Foucault calls it "less the absolute limit of discourse...than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies" (Foucault 1990:27). The overall strategies that have produced discourses on sex have not superceded silence but rather employed it in the formation of a repressive discourse that allows articulation to be associated with truth. In other words, the repression of words about sex is not an institutionally imposed blockage but rather a structure engineered to empower words about sex to be also words of knowledge and truth. When "[t]he mere fact that one is speaking about [sex] has the appearance of a deliberate transgression," the words being spoken become all the more significant (Foucault 1990:6). Structuring speech about sex within a discourse of repression frames the speech as an "opportunity to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and promise bliss, to link together enlightenment, liberation, and manifold pleasures" (Foucault 1990:7). Sex, then, is not just the interface of pleasure-seeking bodies, a sweaty tangle of limbs and organs in search of sensual gratification; "constructed around and apropros of sex [is] an immense apparatus for producing truth" (Foucault 1990:56). Silence and repression are not hindrances to this apparatus but a part of its structure.
Kingsolver attempts to use her confession to pose a series of counter-cultural statements about sex, but while these statements are interesting and even insightful (I, for one, would whole-heartedly support a move in literature toward writing good sex, in all its juicy details), they do not recognize that the "culture" being "countered" is, in fact, a mechanism of some truth-producing apparatus. Nor does Kingsolver explicitly acknowledge a compulsion to tether words about sex to revelation of truth. The text lacks a certain self-awareness. Positioning itself as exploding current and limited discourses on sex, it fails to recognize its own place as a limited and limiting discourse working within a system in which "sex [is] constituted as a problem of truth" (Foucault 1990:56).
This lack of insight pervades the discussions of discourses that Kingsolver does recognize as limitations of frank sex talk. The essay offers persuasive ideas about the framing of sex as a private act and the proliferation of sexuality in popular or consumer culture. However, the criticism of these discourses is incomplete in that it is formulated through an evaluation of sex dependent on the connection of sex to truth. For example, by relying on a privileging of truth-producing discourses, Kingsolver depicts the marketing of sex in popular or consumer culture in negative terms. In pointing out that "[M]odels in the receptive lordotic posture...[are used] to sell jeans or liquor," Kingsolver draws attention to sex that is seemingly misplaced (Kingsolver 2002:226). In the discourse of popular culture, the relation between sex and what is being said with sex is insufficiently established, which results in meaningless or even harmful depictions of sex. Having established within pop culture an extant discourse that does little to give sex value, Kingsolver can lay out her plan for literature to become an opposing discourse of meaningful sex.
The assumption here is that meaning and value are desirable traits that are associated with truth and knowledge, traits that are somehow more important than sensual stimulation. Both of these contrasted discourses are characterized by an association with pleasure. The "lesser" discourse focuses on sensual pleasures. Kingsolver's essay depicts such a focus as limited and insufficient justification to make private sex a public act. Instead, the preferred pleasure is an intellectual one; Foucault describes it as "the pleasure of knowing [the truth of pleasure], of discovering and exposing it, the fascination of seeing it and telling it, of captivating and capturing others by it, of confiding it in secret, of luring it out in the open" (Foucault 1990:71). Images of confession surface again within this privileged pleasure of truth-disclosure. The text clearly judges this latter discourse and its pleasure as worthy of publicizing and the former as not.
To me, this is one of the weakest points of the essay. Kingsolver's failure to recognize the conflation of sex and truth as yet another discourse haunts all of her arguments. In this case, it leads her to formulate a discourse on sex that she believes is innovative and freeing but which actually serves to re-situate sex's legitimacy within a certain elite conversation, having value only as it relates to the search for truth. In all fairness, the essay itself may simply be proposing that discussions of sex be extended to the realm of literature, since they are already taking place on the level of popular culture. However, the contrast of this pop culture discourse with her proposed literary one reinforces the notion that importance and value must be tied to enlightenment, rendering other priorities, such as physical satisfaction, petty or misguided. I find such prioritizing to have dangerous undertones, pointing to intellectual elitism and a discounting of the body that Kingsolver herself objects to in other contexts.
While Kingsolver may present compelling arguments for bringing sex into the field of literature, the discourses on sex that she advocates must be recognized as limited and limiting. A claim that a book about life can legitimately speak the intimate details of sex because sex is the act of creating life is rife with implicit messages. Perhaps the loudest of these is that sex is legitimate only when it is potentially reproductive. Thus, contact of male and female genitals remains the standard against which all other forms of sex are evaluated and found wanting. Another consequence of the appeal to biology is the impossibility of pleasure as the center of the sex act. I am not intimating that Kingsolver does not enjoy sex. The text practically pulsates with the knowledge that sex feels good; that writing and thinking about sex is fun. However, it frames this fun in functionality, disarming the potency of pleasure by insisting that we enjoy sex because we are genetically predisposed to doing and liking sex, not simply because sex is enjoyable.
Kingsolver's justification of sex as a topic of discourse that reveals truth is a more subtle limitation of sex. It is founded, after all, on networks of thought, years in the making, that have been engineered to be formative of belief systems. These are the networks that create systems of writing in which readers and writers are thought to interact; they allow for the evolution of an imposition to speak into a confessional order of truth production. Through these systems of thought, a process emerges whereby "we demand that sex speak the truth... but we reserve for ourselves the function of telling the truth of its truth, revealed and deciphered at last" (Foucault 1990:69). Kingsolver's text participates in precisely this process. It calls for more writing about sex, believing in the confessional tradition that more words and more details will reveal more truth. It fails to recognize the control it has in first demanding speech and then filtering words into a certain context, for a certain audience and with a certain intended message.
In positing literature as the site for the emergence of the "true" discourse on sex and truth, Kingsolver's essay makes an assertion about what can and cannot be an avenue for truth. Language can. Bodies cannot. The verbal description of thrusting hips, needy kisses and throbbing organs has a legitimacy that the actions and sensations themselves are denied. The sex act is viewed as simply the fulfillment of a predisposition to certain behaviors. Speech about the sex act is perceived not as the fulfillment of an obligation to confess, but as an individual's choice to overcome the push to repress such knowledge. The discourses Kingsolver advocates are based on truth that is already manufactured, already embedded in a point of view, and has already eliminated certain possible truths. Rather than acknowledging the constrained nature of these foundations, the essay celebrates its own openness to words about sex, failing to recognize its position as yet another confining discourse that seeks to shape both sex and truth.
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Derrida, Jacques. "Signature, Event, Context." in The Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduc tion. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Kingsolver, Barbara. "Taming the Beast with Two Backs," in Small Wonder. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002.
LiErin Probasco '04 is a sociology/anthropology major and philosophy minor. She is also a Writing Associate. This paper was written for Professor Brian Axel's Sociology/Anthropology 110: Performance Theory, Gender and Sexuality. About this paper, she says, "Writing about another person's writing process was challenging enough. Having pulled apart the fantasy of a writer I admire, I am reluctant to bare all and indulge in my own personal writing fantasies. They all surfaced in writing this paper. Commissioned by my professor to have fun with the assignment, I gleefully toyed with phrases, splashing my fine academic prose with heavy-handed innuendo. I wrestled with my words as well, struggling to express with clarity and precision what I hoped would be a subversive and subtle argument. In my writing fantasy, to write well involves both struggle and delight. Come to think of it, so do most of my other fantasies..."